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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks to members of the press at the Capitol on Sept. 13, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks to members of the press at the Capitol on Sept. 13, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sitting cross-legged in his Texas boots, Ted Cruz looked at the more than 75 FBS athletic directors before him as he contemplated an answer to the question we just asked: What are the chances that Congress will soon pass a college athletics bill governing name, image and likeness (NIL)?

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Eight seconds of silence passed.

“I think the odds of us getting it are 60-40,” Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, finally whispered into the microphone.

Loud applause arose from his audience. And then, about 15 minutes later, in a fitting riposte to the division in Congress, Cruz’s Democratic counterpart in the U.S. Senate sent expectations plummeting.

“The chances are not 60-40,” said Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It’s less than 50-50 that Congress will do anything comprehensive anytime soon.”

The discord among congressional lawmakers played out here Tuesday in front of some of college sports’ top administrators. Over the course of 90 minutes, three U.S. senators and one congresswoman separately expressed varying degrees of opinions and predictions about the passage of the college athletes legislation.

Amid an urgent push by NCAA and university leaders for a federal bill, lawmakers offered a mixed bag during an annual meeting of university officials with LEAD1, an organization that represents most FBS athletic directors. .

From an elevated stage in a downtown D.C. hotel room, the dichotomy wasn’t all that surprising to members of a divided or, some would say, fractured U.S. Senate. There was optimism and pessimism. There were compromises and disagreements.

One senator, Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, acknowledged that he wants to reverse the new NCAA rules to “put the genie back” in the bottle, preserve a more amateur model and prevent athletes from becoming employees.

Another, Murphy, told administrators that it is “too late” to protect any amateur system in college sports and that leaders should seriously explore a way to share revenue with athletes, opening the door to what he says is the answer: collective bargaining and potentially employment.

And then there was Cruz, who as ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee is one of the most influential lawmakers on the issue. The commerce committee has jurisdiction over any college athlete bills.

“I think it’s more likely than not,” he said of a bill passing, “but I don’t want to underestimate the challenges. That 40 (percent in the 60-40) is real. I am optimistic because I believe the need is urgent. But we also have a dynamic in which there are real and significant partisan divisions. That being said, we can overcome them.”

Negotiations have begun among top Senate leaders on the committee. They include Cruz, the highest-ranking Republican; Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.); and other Democrats invested in the issue, such as Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who along with two other senators released a college sports rights bill earlier this year.

The path to a bill is simple to explain but elusive: Cruz and Booker agree on concepts on the issue, somehow combining their two bills into a single article that Cantwell presents to a full committee.

Cruz and Cantwell have had “positive and constructive” conversations, Cruz said. They hold a working lunch every three weeks. At their last meeting last week, the two spent “half of lunch” discussing this topic.

“Maria has expressed interest in trying to address this issue. “She’s not sure we can achieve a bipartisan compromise and if we can’t, it won’t pass,” Cruz said. “I think it is urgent to act. This is not an issue that we should spend 10 years studying. We need to act. You are all dealing with the consequences of the Wild West. “I don’t think that’s good for the long-term sustainability of college athletics.”

As Cruz puts it, an agreement between the ranking member and the president on legislation is the recipe for a successful bill to move from committee to the full Senate and then, after a successful vote in the Senate, to the House of Representatives, where a Republican majority is more inclined to quickly approve such a proposal.

It can happen?

Well, it’s complicated.

“I find myself saying this very rarely in the Senate,” Murphy said, “but I think Ted is right. I think this is one of the issues where there is an ability to find common ground. Yes, there are some differences between Democrats and Republicans, but not for traditional left versus right reasons.”

The differences lie in a few key issues, lawmakers maintain:

(1) NCAA Legal Protection: While Cruz wants to give authority to oversee NIL to the NCAA and grant the association at least a partial antitrust exemption, Murphy and other Democrats vehemently reject such a concept. “That would be a big mistake,” Murphy said.

(2) Employment of athletes: Some, like Cruz, believe any bill should stipulate that college athletes are students and not employees, something that could stop ongoing litigation to consider college players employees of their schools or conferences. Cruz maintains that Democrats are less inclined to adopt such a provision because of their relationship with trial lawyers and unions.

At one point, Manchin, staunchly against the employment of college athletes, delivered a message aimed at his Democratic colleagues: “Should student-athletes be employed?” he said. “Criminal Jesus! You’re crazy?”

In a clear and striking difference, Murphy pressed university leaders to examine a model for sharing revenue with athletes and bargaining collectively with them: “You may not agree,” he said, “but I think it feels and smells much to employment at the highest levels. level of the sport… that is becoming more and more attractive to me as a potential way forward.”

There is also disagreement on this issue in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Lori Trahan, a Massachusetts Democrat present Tuesday, gave little hope that the House would craft a strong bill. Trahan described a draft NIL bill from Rep. Gus Bilirakis as “not a good bill” with little chance of passing the Senate, even if it passes the Republican-controlled House.

“Progress is not going to be taken advantage of,” he told administrators.

For legislation in this Congress, a deadline looms. Once the presidential election cycle begins (this winter), most congressional legislation tends to slow down.

Meanwhile, in the courts, a series of cases that could financially cripple college sports are making their way through the judicial system, including one, House v. NCAA, in which a class action certification hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

While many of the cases are more than a year away from the end of an appeals process, they weigh on an industry that may have to pay billions to former athletes in payments related to the NIL and Alston v. NCAA.

In a harbinger of trouble to come, Murphy, toward the end of his session before trustees, was clear and concise about what he believes is to come.

“Time is ticking,” he said. “The appellate courts and the Supreme Court are going to tear down the existing system and paradigm sooner rather than later. I think it will be up to the people in this room to really lead the reform. At this time, this is not a priority issue in Congress.”

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